Ecstasy (3, 4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine) (MDMA) (also called Adam, E,
X, eccie) is a synthetic, psychoactive drug with both stimulant and hallucinogenic
properties similar to methamphetamine and mescaline. Similar compounds
include MDA and MDEA (Eve). Most tablets containing MDMA are produced in
clandestine laboratories in Belgium, Luxemburg, or in Asia and the tablets may
contain only MDMA or MDA or they may contain either of those drugs and
acetaminophen, caffeine, codeine, ketamine, methamphetamine, MDE,
pseudoephedrine, or nothing.
Adverse Effects
Common adverse physical effects of MDMA include
agitation, anxiety, tachycardia and hypertension; more
serious adverse reactions include hyperthermia,
rhabdomyolysis, disseminated intravascular
coagulation, renal failure, cardiac complications,
intracranial hemorrhage, and hepatotoxicity [1, 2, 3].
Another term used to describe these adverse effects is
“serotonin syndrome,” which is characterized by
enhanced physical activity, sweating, lack of
coordination, mental confusion, trismus, jaw clenching,
agitation, hyperreflexia, hyperthermia, shivering,
rhabdomyolysis, metabolic acidosis, myoclonus,
tremor, and nystagmus [4].
Cognitive/Psychiatric Associations
Long-term neurotoxic effects of MDMA, particularly in
the serotonergic system, are not fully known. One study
found ecstasy polydrug users were significantly more
impaired on a recognition task for complex visual
patterns and spatial working memory as a function of
task difficulty. They also showed a trend towards
impairment on several learning paradigms. They
remained relatively unimpaired on most measures
associated with prefrontal functioning, with the
exception of verbal fluency “letter” generation [5]. The
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observed impairment may be attributable to a
combination of reversible acute effects of MDMA
resolving over a period of 2-3 weeks and more longterm changes associated with extent of lifetime
consumption [6]. Evidence has also been found that
MDMA use may be associated with deficits in
executive functioning (planning, initiation, and selfregulation of goal-directed behavior) [7].
Studies have suggested use of MDMA affects
depression, other mood disorders, impulsiveness or
hostility, psychotic symptoms, anxiety and panic
disorders, and other psychopathologic disturbances.
The selective impairments of neuropsychological
performance associated with regular ecstasy use have
been found not to be reversed by prolonged abstinence,
which is consistent with evidence that ecstasy has
potent and selective neurotoxic effects on brain
serotonergic systems in humans [8]. A prospectivelongitudinal study of mental disorders in ecstasy users
found users were at significantly increased risk of
DSM-IV substance-related disorders and at higher risk
of alcohol use disorders than users of other illicit
substances. They also had significantly higher rates for
almost all DSM-IV mental disorders than did non-users
or users of other illicit drugs. However, the ecstasy use
might be associated with use of multiple substances and
onset of mental disorder is more likely to precede rather
than follow use of ecstasy and related substances [9].
Individuals who have taken a larger number of MDMA
tablets have a higher risk of developing psychiatric
disorders, and polydrug use itself may lead to different
problems. It may be beneficial to assess the
consequences of ecstasy use within the wider context of
recreational drug use as a whole [10].
A review of studies of chronic recreational use of
MDMA showed repeated use of ecstasy to be
associated with sleep, mood, and anxiety disturbances,
elevated impulsiveness, memory deficits, and attention
problems which may persist for up to two years after
cessation. In a subset of humans, particularly
adolescents, depletion of serotonin by MDMA use may
hasten or enhance vulnerability to a wide array of
neuropsychiatric problems such as persistent depression
of mood, manifestations of anxiety, psychosis,
increases in impulsiveness, hostility, aggression, and
sleep disturbances [11].
The levels of past use of ecstasy affect psychological
problems. In a web-based survey of 282 ecstasy users,
depression, memory problems, anxiety, mood
fluctuation, poor concentration, infections,
tremors/twitches, and weight loss were all significantly
associated with the extent of ecstasy use [12]. Former
chronic ecstasy users who had not consumed ecstasy in
the last 14 days had higher levels of depression than
their matched controls and might be at risk with regard
to the development of a more severe depressive
syndrome [13]. Another study found that ex-users of
ecstasy could be divided into two groups: those who
had quit for mental health reasons and those who had
quit for circumstantial reasons. Half of those who quit
for mental heath reasons scored in the range for clinical
depression and current levels of depression and anxiety
correlated significantly with the cumulative amount of
MDMA they had taken several years previously. This
study suggests that some users may either be more
vulnerable to the adverse effects of MDMA or have
pre-existing mental health problems for which they
self-medicate by using ecstasy. Some of these users
experienced mental health impairment that persisted for
years after they stopped using the drug [14].
The long-term effects most frequently reported
included the development of tolerance to MDMA
(59%), impaired ability to concentrate (38%),
depression (37%), and “feeling more open towards
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people” (31%). The most prominent concern of the
users was the drug’s long-term effects on mental health
[15]. Heavy ecstasy polydrug users reported
significantly higher scores than non-drug users on
several Symptom Checklist-90 (SCL-90) factors,
including phobic anxiety, obsessive-compulsive
behavior, anxiety, psychosis, somatisation, and
significantly higher rates of “loss of sex or pleasure”
MDMA users are reported to be taking selective
serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) such as fluoxetine
or sertraline or antioxidants such as vitamin C or
vitamin E to minimize their risks. Animal experiments
suggest these substances may reduce serotonin
depletion by MDMA but they have not shown they
protect against brain damage and SSRIs may block the
metabolism of MDMA by the liver [17] as well as
facilitate the occurrence of serotonin syndrome [18].
Underground websites give specific information as to
“preloading” and “postloading” and the use of over-thecounter supplements such as 5-hydroxytryptophan (5HTP), although this information does not appear to
have been medically evaluated.
There is no antidote for MDMA, only supportive care
similar to treatment of amphetamine or
methamphetamine overdose [2]. No withdrawal
syndrome from MDMA has been reported [19],
although a study of 173 adolescents and young adults
interviewed with the Composite International
Diagnostic Interview, Substance Module, found that
43% met the DSM-IV criteria for dependence on
ecstasy and 34% met the criteria for abuse of ecstasy
[20]. While studies have suggested recreational ecstasy
use is related to depression and poorer memory as well
as learning and attention abilities (one study found
feelings of depression approached clinical levels of
depression [21], articles on evidence-based treatment
for persons seeking help for ecstasy dependence do not
appear to exist [22].
An analysis of characteristics of clients entering
TCADA programs with a primary, secondary, or
tertiary problem with ecstasy between 1988 and 2003
found that these clients reported using the drug on eight
days in the past month, which equals weekend use [23].
However, 80% reported that marijuana, alcohol,
powder cocaine, or methamphetamine was their
primary problem drug, a relationship which would
affect their treatment prognosis. Clinicians should be
prepared to provide treatment for these combinations.
In addition, ecstasy use has spread beyond the club
culture into the community, as shown by the increasing
proportions of persons of color. In 1990, 88% of clients
with any problem with ecstasy were White, 8% were
Hispanic, and 4% were Black; in 2003, 63% were
White, 19% were Hispanic, and 16% were Black.
Clinicians should be prepared to provide services which
are culturally relevant to these users.
Clients who used ecstasy were more likely at admission
to enter residential programs, but only 39% completed
treatment even though they had a longer length of stay.
Six percent had received a DSM diagnosis of
depression, and 5% received anti-depressants. Given
the correlation of use of ecstasy and depression and
other psychological problems as cited in the literature,
it would seem that more clients should be assessed for
depression and wider use of anti-depressant
medications should be evaluated. In addition, the
research findings about impaired concentration indicate
that treatment techniques used for individuals with
cognitive disabilities would be appropriate in some
cases [24].
dependence—a pattern of substance misuse characterized by a combination of factors, such as withdrawal, tolerance, cravings, out-control
use, and use despite negative effects.
depression—a mood disorder characterized by poor appetite or overeating, sleeplessness or hypersomnia, low energy or fatigue, low selfesteem, feelings of hopelessness, and difficulty concentrating or making decisions.
disseminated intravascular coagulation—a complex and controversial systemic thrombohemorrhagic disorder involving the generation of
intravascular fibrin and the consumption of procoagulants and platelets. It is seen with a number of well-defined clinical situations,
including sepsis and major trauma.
DSM-IV—Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 4th edition, which is the diagnostic criteria of psychiatric disorders published by the
American Psychiatric Association.
executive functioning—associated with mental operations such as planning, working memory, and initiation and self-regulation of goaldirected behavior.
hepatotoxicity—a state of toxic damage to the liver, a common cause of acute liver disease, morbidity and mortality.
hypertension—high blood pressure.
hyperthermia—exceptionally high fever.
metabolic acidosis—a disturbance of the body acid-base balance in which there is excessive acidity of the blood. Metabolic acidosis can
occur as a result of many different diseases, such as kidney failure, poisoning, diabetic ketoacidosis, and shock.
myoclonus—irregular involuntary contraction of a muscle usually resulting from functional disorder of controlling motoneurons.
nystagmus—a rapid involuntary oscillation of the eyeballs.
neurotransmission—the transmission of nerve impulses across a synapse.
psychosis—a thought disorder in which reality is grossly distorted. Symptoms can include seeing, hearing, smelling, or tasting things that
are not there; paranoia; delusions. Psychosis can occur as a result of brain injury or disease, and is seen particularly in schizophrenia
and bipolar disorders.
rhabdomyolysis—the breakdown of muscle fibers with leakage of potentially toxic cellular contents into the systemic circulation.
serotonin—a phenolic amine neurotransmitter C10H12N2O that is a powerful vasoconstrictor and is found especially in the brain, blood
serum, and gastric mucous membrane of mammals; called also 5-HT 5-hydroxytryptamine.
serotonin syndrome—characterized by enhanced physical activity, sweating, lack of coordination, mental confusion, trismus, jaw
clenching, agitation, hyperreflexia, hyperthermia, shivering, rhabdomyolysis, metabolic acidosis, myoclonus, tremor and nystagmus.
SERT—seratonin transporter.
somatization—The unconscious process by which psychologic distress is manifested as physical symptoms.
SSRI—selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors.
tachycardia—relatively rapid heart action whether physiological (as after exercise) or pathological.
verbal fluency letter generation—a classic neuropsychological test of language production which involves subjects generating and
articulating a word in response to a cue the Verbal Fluency Task. As an example, in the letter category, participants are asked to
produce as many words as possible beginning with a specified letter in one minute.
GCATTC: Promoting Quality Treatment through Evidence-Based Practice
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